Interview: Stantec UK MD Cath Schefer
After MWH merged into Stantec, the combined business is putting the focus squarely on collaboration and innovation to find solutions to the big issues
• Stantec, founded in Canada in 1954, last year announced a 49.5% increase in gross revenue for 2016, totalling CAD $4.3BN (£2.5BN).
• MWH, established in England in 1844, employed 1,000 people in the UK.
• The merger saw the creation of a combined business with 22,000 employees globally, across 400 locations, spanning six continents.
• There are offices in 35 countries, operating in six continents.
By Robin Hackett
Following its integration of MWH UK and MWH Treatment at the turn of the year, Stantec – a previously North America-focused global infrastructure design and delivery company – became instantly established as a key player in the UK infrastructure market.
For MWH’s part, the union presented the chance to make the company more innovative, offering up creative solutions to major problems.
The merger, which means MWH UK and MWH Treatment are now known as Stantec and Stantec Treatment, allows the UK business to expand further into infrastructure, energy and resources, environmental services and buildings. While MWH has always had a huge offering in water, Stantec brings in a large global architectural presence and expertise in urban design and resilience.
“Coming together with Stantec was very logical for us because they are multi-sector but they didn’t have a global footprint,” Cath Schefer, UK Managing Director at Stantec UK, says. “They were really concentrated mainly around America and Canada, so the combination of the two companies will ultimately give us a multi-sector global company.”
Schefer joined MWH in 1999 and has over 25 years’ experience in design, construction and programme management of water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Among her key areas of focus had been MWH’s “Building a Better World” philosophy and promoting cross-regional working and knowledge sharing; Stantec’s arrival only serves to assist in those aims, bringing an increased focus on creative solutions to issues including flooding and resilience, as well as aiming to bring together multiple stakeholders, not least local communities.
“Their whole ethos is around community development – that’s in their roots,” she says. “I do think there’s an element of architectural flair – ‘How can we make a solution look good and feel good for the community?’ That’s where they have a real strength.”
She highlights MWH’s experience with sustainable drainage systems (SuDs), including a recent project for Northumbrian Water using trees to slow down flow and retain water, but suggests Stantec’s urban design experience will open up a variety of further solutions.
“You use the natural capital around the flooding and say, ‘In the winter, we’ll turn it into a watercourse’, so you don’t build a big public storage retention tank but you build something that benefits the community,” she says. “Then in the summer, when there is no flooding, that can become a playing field or something the local community can use.”
She offers the example of a Stantec project in Phoenix, Arizona, that serves as a waterway that locals can walk alongside during periods of flooding, while in the dry season it becomes a path designed for use by skateboarders.
“It’s just trying to be more innovative around how you make a place more resilient while also enhancing the community, and I think that’s where Stantec has got real skills,” she adds. “They’re quite innovative around some of the solutions they come up with – probably a little bit more innovative than we are.”
Stantec has also placed an emphasis on widening the conversation. Referencing a project to tackle flooding in Hull and Haltemprice, Schefer says: “We’ve brought a couple of Stantec resilience experts over and we’ve been looking at the problems associated with flooding in Hull and looking at how you bring multiple stakeholders together to solve that flooding. It’s all facilitated by Yorkshire Water. They’re trying to really rally the local community, the local council and local businesses around trying to understand what the problems are and trying to work out different ways of funding a scheme to actually solve that, so it’s a community approach to solving the problem rather than just a water company approach or a council approach.”
Schefer says the merger will have only a positive impact on MWH employees, creating new opportunities, and staff wellbeing across the industry is a clear area of interest.
“One of the real step changes we’ve seen in this AMP is the focus on health, safety and wellbeing, with more of a focus on wellbeing than we’ve ever seen before,” she says. “Just making people aware of the pressures of work and the pressures of society is something I think has really taken off in the last few years in quite a phenomenal way and had a very, very positive effect on the industry. Collaboration and wellbeing is something we’ve seen far more than in previous AMPs. Clients focus on it. Clients are bringing in experts and wellbeing programmes.”
With AMP7 coming up in 2020, Schefer’s main hope is that the trend continues, and increasing awareness of offsite manufacturing could help drive further improvements to staff safety.
“We’re already seeing offsite manufacturing,” she says. “It’s something that’s becoming reality – we’ve seen it on quite a few projects. We’re not just talking about it – the industry is actually doing it. With the recent projects we did for Severn Trent, we would develop what it is we want to build using virtual reality, get it exactly right, make sure all the operators are happy with what we’re proposing and then build the entire plant offsite and bring it to site on the back of a lorry and assemble it effectively in days, which previously would have taken weeks.
“If you could get to a point where you design everything virtually and then you build it in reality – so that, for example, all your accidents happen virtually rather than in reality – you’ve ironed out everything you possibly can before you build it. If you can continue this trend of building things offsite and then assembling them onsite, so that the construction issue becomes more of an assembly industry, you’re going to be changing people’s lives in a very positive way.”
With total expenditure (Totex) having been a major theme for AMP6, Schefer expresses some disappointment at water companies’ continued reluctance to invigorate their existing infrastructure, as well as their failure to allow the supply chain to “be really inventive around the solutions” and try to eliminate problems at source.
Nonetheless, she clearly believes the Stantec integration will help the business play its part in tackling the major issues facing the industry.
“I think our staff in the UK have really embraced Stantec and seen it as a very positive thing,” she says. “It does feel very much like two excellent companies coming together and working out how, between us, we can be a better company. Their whole approach to integration has been incredibly positive; they’ve recognised where the strengths are in both companies, and are trying to take the best of both and put the two together.”
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